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Day Two of the June Query Workshop with Pitch Wars Mentors … Brianna Shrum & Casey Lyall

Saturday, 6 June 2015  |  Posted by Brenda Drake

B workshop2


Welcome to the June Query Workshop with some of our past and present PitchWars mentors. From a Rafflecopter lottery drawing, we selected many wonderful writers to participate in the workshop. Each mentor has graciously critiqued a query letter for one lucky writer. The writers are anonymous. Follow along all month to view the query critiques. We welcome comments and further suggestions, but please keep them kind and respectful.

Here are the next two mentors and their critiques …


BriannaBrianna Shrum



Brianna lives in Colorado with her high-school-sweetheart turned husband and her two little boys. She digs all things YA, all things geeky, superhero-y, gamery, magical, and strange. She is represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary. Her debut YA, Never Never, releases in September of this year. Her second YA, How to Make Out, releases in Fall 2016.

Check out her newest book releasing from Spencer Hill Press on September 22, 2015 …

Never NeverAdd it on Goodreads here!

Preorder on Amazon here!

James Hook is a child who only wants to grow up.

When he meets Peter Pan, a boy who loves to pretend and is intent on never becoming a man, James decides he could try being a child—at least briefly. James joins Peter Pan on a holiday to Neverland, a place of adventure created by children’s dreams, but Neverland is not for the faint of heart. Soon James finds himself longing for home, determined that he is destined to be a man. But Peter refuses to take him back, leaving James trapped in a world just beyond the one he loves. A world where children are to never grow up.

But grow up he does.

And thus begins the epic adventure of a Lost Boy and a Pirate. This story isn’t about Peter Pan; it’s about the boy whose life he stole. It’s about a man in a world that hates men. It’s about the feared Captain James Hook and his passionate quest to kill the Pan, an impossible feat in a magical land where everyone loves Peter Pan.

Except one.

Brianna’s query critique …

Query #4:

Dear Agent,

We hope we can interest you in our co-authored young adult novel, STEAM, STEEL AND STATIC, complete at 60,000 words. Our story is like a cross between LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld and LEGEND by Marie Lu. I think this could be pared down a tad, word-wise. Super interesting comp titles here, by the way! But it might make a stronger impression as “…young adult sci-fi, (Genre important, which is why I changed novel to sci-fi) complete at 60,000 words. STEAM, STEEL, AND STATIC is Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan meets Marie Lu’s Legend. (I’d cut co-authored as well, because that’s pretty clear without the clarification.) We’ve taken the real world’s gender imbalances and turned them upside down. With your passion for equality we think this manuscript would be a great fit for you. Good possible personalization there. Our characters are diverse but the main emphasis is on gender imbalances. I’d cut this sentence. It’s repetitive, and doesn’t really add anything to the query.

Sixteen-year-old Adaline Tolliver lives in a city ruled by women, built with steel and stone, and run by steam and static. Interesting. Addie doesn’t want to serve the Timekeeper’s oppressive matriarchal society or stand by while bullies torment the boys at school. But she’s sick of the life her defiant mother has forced them into, living as outcasts while selling weapons to survive. How do these last two sentences connect to each other?

Addie’s world is thrown into disarray when a strange man stumbles into their flat. While her mother nurses the fugitive He’s a fugitive? And injured? Can you get that across earlier? to health, Addie takes refuge in the scrap yard. There she meets Alaric. Unlike other boys, he loves tinkering with mechanations as much as she does. Even more surprising, he’s determined to see men treated equally. Addie’s relationship with Alaric challenges the accepted view that men are less capable than women. Ok, so what’s going on with the random injured fugitive at her house? I like the addition of a love interest (YAY LOVE), but am wondering now if the fugitive line is necessary. But when secrets about her mother’s past come to light Can you be more specific here? and lead to her mother’s arrest, Addie becomes an outlaw. Why does her mother’s arrest lead to her becoming an outlaw? Alaric takes her into the desert to join the Egalitarian rebels but they soon discover the rebels’ agenda is as corrupt as the Timekeeper’s. o0o0o0o0oh interesting. Disillusioned, Addie and Alaric return to the city to bargain for their parent’s parents’ freedom but in the process ultimately take a stand against the tyrants who threaten true equality. Trusting each other and a precarious vision for the future, they thwart both the Timekeeper and the Egalitarians to bring about an unlikely democracy. Ok, so at this point, there has been some very cool stuff brought up, plotwise, but this is more of a synopsis. In a synopsis, you give away the ending like you did here. In a query, your goal is just to give the main conflict of the story, and juuuuuuust enough to be clear but pique an agent’s interest. You don’t actually have to give all this info, and you can leave your ending secret. I’d suggest going back through and deciding what the absolute most important, most compelling plot point or two in your story is, finding the most vital stakes, and reduce the query to that. 🙂

Jennifer, a museum educator, has published articles and edited books for the Wisconsin Historical Society. Moy is a veterinarian from Northern Ireland, who grew up amidst a different type of inequality. We have been writing together for seven years. We are both members and volunteers of the SCBWI Wisconsin chapter. We would be delighted to hear from you. Thank you for your time. Good info in the bio here.

I think you have a great start here! Pare down to the necessary stuff and really focus on your stakes, and this has a lot of potential! Best of luck!!!



Casey(1)Casey Lyall




Library worker by day, middle grade writer by night, Casey Lyall hails from the Southwestern wilds of Ontario, Canada. She has a degree in Fine Arts, is a member of the SCBWI, and blogs with Kick-Butt Kidlit. Some of Casey’s special skills include baking a mean cookie, falling in love with doomed television shows, and always looking on the bright side of life. She is represented by Molly Ker Hawn of the Bent Agency.

Casey’s query critiques …

Query #5:

Dear Pitch Wars Query Workshop,

Every day after ballet, Tabitha pirouettes across the parking lot to Big Bob’s Motorcycle Repair Shop for tuna salad sandwiches and conversations as winding as those Penn Yan country roads (I love this opening line. The ballet dancer hanging out at a motorcycle repair shop is a great hook. However, I find the Penn Yan country roads part confusing. You don’t want to start your query with a reference that has to be explained.). Tabitha and Bob don’t have much in common—except that both are deaf in one ear (Why is she heading over there? What is Bob to her? Is that all they’ve bonded over?). Tabitha wants for once to feel beautiful (This is an awkward transition. It also vaguely implies that she doesn’t feel beautiful because she is partially deaf.). But perfect Plum Findley gets in the way when she snatches the starring role in the October Fair recital, even though Tabitha worked harder than anyone all summer. And that boatyard boy, Howie Preston, only makes matters worse when he starts calling Tabitha “Cindersmella” all because of a stupid perfume accident. (How do these two things relate to Tabitha feeling beautiful/hanging out with Bob? This feels like an abrupt change of topic.)

A few thoughts so far: Four named characters are a lot to keep track of in a query. You might want to consider narrowing the focus a bit. You have a very limited amount of space to work with in a query and you want to make the most of it. There is some lovely imagery here, but I’m still confused about what is actually going on in the story. I would also recommend breaking up some of these long sentences.

Big Bob can fix anything, even people. He knows a lot of things, like how to scrape the rust off a fifty-two-year-old motorcycle. He knows how people keep ghosts in their sock drawers, even if he won’t tell what’s in his, and he knows how beauty isn’t perfection because even the sky has scars. (This is beautiful imagery, but it’s also a lot of query space devoted solely to Bob. Tabitha is the main character so she’s the person you want to focus on and hook us with.) But when Bob disappears in a pile of warped metal and crushed tires, Tabitha decides she’s through with caring. (I think you need to focus more on the bond between Bob and Tabitha at the beginning of your query to make this section have more of an impact. Also, the phrase ‘she’s through with caring’ rings a little odd to me. Was she making an extra special effort to care and now with Bob’s death, she’s decided it’s not worth it?) No more family, no more ballet, no more nothing. Taking Bob’s last advice, Tabitha uncovers the ghosts tucked in some unlikely friends’ sock drawers and scrapes away at the rust on their hearts. (This doesn’t quite fit with your previous sentence. If she’s through with caring, why would she actively take Bob’s advice, uncovering other people’s ghosts, trying to help them?)But to scrape the rust off her own heart, Tabitha must discover the importance of caring about things that disappear, or else lose ballet just like Bob. (I don’t think the stakes are as clear as they could be. How does caring about things that disappear relate to possibly losing ballet? How does losing ballet compare to the death of Bob? This is where clarity becomes important in a query. I need to know exactly how important Bob was to Tabitha and how important ballet is to her. I can’t be invested in the stakes of her losing those things otherwise. I’m left with the question of why would it be a big deal for Tabitha to lose ballet and is that really what’s at stake?)

KEEPING CLOSE THE GHOSTS (Excellent title!) is a middle grade literary novel complete at 31,000 words. I feel My novel would will appeal to fans of Sharon Creech’s THE GREAT UNEXPECTED (Use strong, present tense language.). Similar to Tabitha, I have experience with dance. I have Irish danced for eleven years, and although Irish dance is different from ballet (I’m not sure that you need this part. Also, the phrase “I have Irish danced” reads a bit awkwardly.) I understand the struggles that dancers of all sorts face. Thank you very much for your time.


Please don’t be discouraged by the amount of comments here. I think this sounds like an intriguing book. A ballerina who’s BFFs with a motorcycle mechanic? Yes, I’d want to read more! But I do believe you could make some changes in order to better showcase your story.

My suggestion is to pare it down. Put the focus on Tabitha. We need to know about her relationship with Bob, her relationship with ballet, what losing Bob does to her, and how it threatens her relationship with ballet. I would only talk about the other two characters obliquely (if you really need to mention them at all).

Style-wise, the transitions from plot point to plot point are somewhat disjointed. I think adding more concrete information will help with that. The metaphors are beautiful, but they need support in order to keep your reader grounded. Descriptive phrases should still serve the purpose of the query letter which is to pitch your story clearly and concisely. I’d like to see more information about the impact of Tabitha’s decision not to care and what is actually at stake for her. Is it more than just losing ballet? Is she losing herself?

There is some lovely writing here. I think with a bit of refining and clarifying, you are on your way to a great query letter. Best of luck!


Thank you, Brianna and Casey, for your critiques. Everyone, come back tomorrow for the next round of critiques!

Also, there’s still time to sign up on the Rafflecopter for the July First Page Workshop with our Pitch Wars past and present mentors. Go to this post here to sign up.

Filed: Misc, Workshops

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